Changing weather means a change in how you feed your milk cow.
It’s early November here in Ohio, and if I’ve learned anything about the weather in Ohio, I’ve learned that she can be fickle.
I knew it was going to dip into the 20s this week. And I knew it was going to snow. But I was still surprised by how much it snowed and how cold it felt.
And I knew that with the change of weather, we’d need to adjust the feeding protocol for our milk cows. This is something I plan and prepare for every year, an important element of keeping a milk cow that I teach new milk cow owners in my online course MilkCow 101.
But, along with being surprised at how much snow and how much cold we had this week, I was also surprised by how quickly our milk production dipped in response.
My jersey cows are still on grass. They are 100% grass-fed which means that without a high-calorie concentrated grain ration, I have to carefully assess their nutritional needs and how well the stock-pile of fall grasses is meeting those needs.
Here in Ohio, as long as the snow comes and goes, we can almost always graze through mid-December with no problem. The grass, though not as nutritionally vibrant as lush summer grass, is still abundant.
But if I want my milk cows to continue to produce at an expected rate, I have to make sure their feed adequately meets their high nutritional and energy needs.
Now, if you have one family milk cow, a dip in production at this time of year is no big deal. In fact, it’s a blessing! (if you know, you know – ha!) Instead of dealing with 28-35 gallons of milk a week, you may now have only 12-20 gallons to deal with, depending on your cow. You can switch to once-a-day milking as both you and your cow adjust to the slower pace of cold, quiet, winter days.
But, because we are sharing milk with our herd share members, my goal is to make sure our grass-fed milk cows have the nutritional support necessary in order to continue to produce at levels similar to when they’re on lush green summer grass.
I generally expect a grass-fed milk cow in good condition, in mid-lactation, milking twice a day, to produce 4+ gallons/day. I will accept 3-4 (1.5-2 gallons/milking), depending on the conditions, and prefer 4-5 (2-2.5 gallons/milking).
However, not all cows are genetically disposed to both maintain condition and produce milk on grass alone. In fact, many many cows simply cannot meet those demands on grass alone and in order to maintain a healthy weight, she’ll need the concentrated calories of a grain ration. That’s not her fault – it’s simply her genetics. And it’s not your fault either – it’s simply her genetics. Your main goal must always be to support the health of your milk cow. Let me emphasize again: you cannot let a romanticized ideal (e.g. grass-fed milk cow) override the nutritional needs of your milk cow.
Here on our farm, because my goal is for our milk cows to maintain a level of production similar to when they’re on green summer pastures, that means supplementing their winter grazing with high-protein, high-energy alfalfa baleage.
They’ll get a high quantity of the roughage they need from the stock-piled grasses in the pasture, but because those older grasses have a lower nutritional quality and aren’t as palatable (tasty), the alfalfa baleage will provide a significant boost in protein (essential for higher levels of production) and energy (essential for maintaining good condition, including warmth, in cold, wet temperatures).
This year, I was hoping to get to December before adding the alfalfa baleage, but since Ohio went cold fast (fickle weather friend that she is), it looks like we’re gonna start this week. With the added protein, calories, and palatability of the alfalfa baleage, I expect the cows to eat more, for the internal furnace of their rumen to keep them plenty warm in the colder temps, and for their production levels to even out within the week. With that, we’ll be back on track and right where we want to be going into the colder temps of a fickle Ohio winter.
Moral of the story: feeding milk cows is all about the end goal.
Right now, my goal is to support their health, energy, and condition in such a way to ensure that they stay warm and healthy in the cold, wet weather of winter in Ohio and that we also have adequate milk production to meet the needs of our herd share. And so, our feeding protocol is designed to specifically target those goals.
If you are a new milk-cow owner, or want to be one soon, you will learn even more about feeding milk cows, including assessing your cow’s needs, setting a goal, and meeting her nutritional needs with that goal in mind (plus everything else you don’t yet know you need to know!) in my online course MilkCow 101. Learn more right here.